Sunday 10 March 2013

Stanton's spanking

There are studies and news stories that pass my desk every week which are so barking mad that I don't know where to start, so I don't. A recent example is a "study" published by the esteemed mechanical engineer Stanton Glantz in the esteemed peer-reviewed comic Tobacco Control which claimed that the US political movement the Tea Party was created, at least in large part, by the tobacco industry in the 1980s and continues to act as a front group for Big Tobacco. I do not exaggerate...

Conclusions: Rather than being a purely grassroots movement that spontaneously developed in 2009, the Tea Party has developed over time, in part through decades of work by the tobacco industry and other corporate interests.

This theory has been endorsed by no less a figure than failed presidential candidate Al Gore and was reported in the Huffington Post thus...

Study Confirms Tea Party Was Created by Big Tobacco and Billionaire Koch Brothers

Notice the way the word "confirms" begs the question here. No serious person has ever suggested any such relationship before and no rational individual will be convinced by Glantz's argument, but by implying that this study adds to a body of evidence, the casual reader is led to believe that this hypothesis has now been proved beyond doubt.

This is a relatively common trick in the world of junk science, but the specifics of this particular claim remain far-fetched to say the least. It is generally agreed that the Tea Party came together as a reaction to the Obama administration at the end of the last decade. Glantz argues that it was really formed twenty five years earlier by the tobacco company Philip Morris using a labyrinthine network of lobby groups. To do this, he adopts the schizophrenic methodology of "seven degrees of separation" to produce results which resemble a monkey's drunken Google binge.

From the abstract...

Results: Starting in the 1980s, tobacco companies worked to create the appearance of broad opposition to tobacco control policies by attempting to create a grassroots smokers’ rights movement.

They did fund some smokers' rights groups. That much is true.

Simultaneously, they funded and worked through third-party groups, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, the predecessor of AFP and FreedomWorks, to accomplish their economic and political agenda.

Uh-huh. So?

There has been continuity of some key players, strategies and messages from these groups to Tea Party organisations.

Also true. So?

As of 2012, the Tea Party was beginning to spread internationally.

That is the abstract in full and it is about as good as the evidence gets. All of these statements are either banal or irrelevant. Like the study itself, it is a series of non sequiturs. What significance is there in the Tea Party's alleged international spread, for example? What does it matter if lobby groups use similar "strategies" and "messages"? It would be surprising if they did not.

The only thing that helps tie Glantz's conspiracy theory together is the reappearance of some "key players" who have supported both smokers' rights and a more general small state, free market, libertarian political agenda. But, again, this is hardly surprising, and Glantz puts the cart before the horse in his argument. At one point he quotes a "field co-ordinator" from the tobacco company RJ Reynolds in his study as supporting evidence...

"In about the third year [of the RJR smokers’ rights groups], there was an emphasis on coalition building—anti-tax groups were a natural. You didn’t have to defend your position on tobacco because a tax is a tax is a tax to these guys."

If Glantz was not so blinkered, he would see that these "anti-tax groups" were being perfectly consistent in opposing higher tobacco taxes. As this quote suggests, these groups needed no persuading. They were not holding one position in public and another in private—which is the implicit accusation levelled at those who are "in the pay of Big Tobacco". They really were against high taxes and therefore were against high tobacco taxes.

It is, therefore, no great shock to discover that some organisations which advocate free choice, property rights and individual liberty have been involved in the fight against tobacco prohibition and have also been involved with the Tea Party. Nor is it surprising that some of the organisations that have supported the Tea Party (a very large coalition) have, at one time or another, received donations from tobacco companies (a very large industry). What is surprising about Glantz's paper is how weak these relationships are and how little evidence there is of collusion. Instead, Glantz has to resort to talking about groups that have been defunct for many years. The Tea Party itself barely features. The study links a host of different right-wing political groups to each other and to Big Tobacco without bothering to actually show any Big Tobacco funding of groups that are involved in the Tea Party. It is a mélange of innuendo and guilt by association of the sort that is done equally ineptly by Glantz's protegé Anna Gilmore at Bath University.

But it doesn't stop there. Oh no. The Tea Party has also been known to use the same "strategies" and "messages" as these libertarian, small-state lobby groups, and Glantz reveals this damning evidence in his study.

The smokers’ rights groups’ publications disputed the health effects of second-hand smoke, promoted ‘choice’ [Don't you love the way Glantz puts the word 'choice' in scare quotes, as if no one really believes in such a concept—CJS] and individual rights and encouraged smokers to defend their rights and freedoms. Some of these appeals made direct reference to the Boston Tea Party. For example, a 1989 issue of Philip Morris Magazine included a section on excise taxes that compared that kind of taxation with the taxes being opposed during the Boston Tea Party.

In 1993, Massachusetts smokers’ rights groups distributed a mailing entitled ‘Protect your right to smoke!’ that included ‘Tea Party’ language to describe opposition to tobacco taxes: ‘New Englanders don’t like unfair taxes —remember the Boston Tea Party?—and they’re fighting mad over proposals in Washington to raise the federal tax on cigarettes from 24 cents a pack to $1.24 or maybe even $2.24 a pack.’

What sane person could deny that these random references to one of the most famous events in American history are irrefutable proof that Philip Morris formed an unrelated pressure group of the same name twenty years later?! Only a cynic would suggest that Glantz did a Google search of the 80 million pages of tobacco industry documents for the term "tea party" and then quoted the two best, if not only, examples of such terminology being used by Big Tobacco.

The study really is as bad as these quotes make it sound. It is the sheer, mind-boggling insanity and paranoia of it that left me unable to write about it when it came out last month. Fortunately, Jacob Sullum was on hand to discuss it at Reason...

According to Glantz et al., then, supporting private property rights, consumer choice, and limited government makes you objectively pro-tobacco, whether or not you are getting any money from cigarette manufacturers. After all, those are "well-established industry arguments." Likewise, if you oppose ObamaCare, you are doing the bidding of Big Tobacco, even if you don't realize it.

If these positions are so clearly indefensible, why does the money matter? "It is important for policy-makers to be aware of the corporate funding sources for organisations that work to influence public policy," Glantz et al. write. "It is important for policy-makers,the health community and people who support the Tea Party to be aware of these complex and often hard-to-track linkages." But they never really explain why. Surely it is possible to judge arguments and evidence on their own merits, without reference to the alleged financial interests of the people offering them.

But rather than respond with arguments and evidence of his own, Glantz seeks to discredit his opponents by implying that they do not really believe what they are saying, that they are only in it for the money. "It is important for tobacco control advocates to anticipate and counter Tea Party opposition to tobacco control policies," Glantz and his co-authors write, "and to ensure that policy makers, the media and the public understand the longstanding intersection between the tobacco industry and the Tea Party policy agenda." In other words, if you don't have logic and facts on your side, smear your opponents as Big Tobacco shills or dupes.

This study is such a transparent attempt by Glantz to weld his left-wing agenda to his anti-tobacco obsession that I was amused to hear that he has recently been called out on it. You see, the study was paid for by the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute. The NCI paid $678,952 for it, according to a subsequent Huffington Post article that was headlined National Cancer Institute funds tea party with hunt. That is a lot of money for any study, let alone a bit of shoddy internet-based research that was knocked out by a nutty professor and two of his UCSF minions.

Deliciously, it seems that politicians are finally starting to ask why public money is being spent propagating the old boy's delusions...

The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee on health and human services, labor, and education met to ask the directors of five agencies about ways to avoid duplicating research in a tight budget environment. Toward the end of the 2-hour hearing, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) asked about a specific National Cancer Institute (NCI)-funded study tracing Tea Party's origins to groups supported by tobacco companies (video around 1:51 here). "They allege that somehow the Tea Party had its origin in the 1980s with tobacco funding, which is pretty incredible," Harris said. "Because I mean, I'm a Tea Party guy. I was there when it was established in 2009. I know the origins. I find it incredible that NIH funding is funding this," Harris said, adding that the study reflects "a partisan political agenda."

No fooling.

Harris fired back: "What is within the NIH's abilities to, shall we say, make sure that this researcher or this institution doesn't play fast and loose with taxpayer money in this kind of research?"

The horse has bolted on that one, Mr Harris. The guy's been at it for the best part of forty years.

If you watch the video of the hearings, you'll see the following exchange between Harris and a rather red-faced representative of the NIH, Dr Collins:

Mr Harris: Dr Collins, what methods does the NIH have when this kind of research takes dollars from cancer research—and other important, vital research—what does the NIH do to universities that waste federal tax dollars this way? ... This was the use of federal dollars on a clearly partisan agenda. What is the NIH going to do to make sure that we don't fund this research, we fund the real medical research as we go forward in a time of constrained resources?

Dr Collins: Of course we thought we were funding a different kind of research when these grants were made.

This implies some degree of deception on the part of the grant applicant, but Glantz is playing the victim, saying that he is "very troubled" by the threat of losing his income from unwitting taxpayers allegations.

His grant proposal didn't hide anything, he says. Written several years ago, it discussed his plan to study the influence on policymaking of "third parties" funded by the tobacco industry. "We didn't go looking for the Tea Party. It emerged naturally in the course of the research," he says, just as a cell biologist's research grant might lead in an unexpected direction.

Comparing himself—a laptop-wielding activist—with a lab scientist is very much part of Glantz's schtick, and the last word must go him...

It's not the first time Glantz's research has drawn hostility from Congress. In 1995, House appropriators voted to defund his NCI grant, but their recommendation was stripped from the final spending bill that year. "This is déjà vu all over again," Glantz says.

I would give Glantz credit for that amusing tautology if I thought it was intentional but, like all fundamentalists and zealots, he is bestowed with neither the wit nor the sense of irony.


Ivan D said...

I believe that Glantz is probably telling the truth about his grant application. What I find really troubling is that NIH knowingly paid the best part of $700K for a politically motivated study with no potential health benefits whilst real scientists working in its laboratories were starved of funds. As you point out, it is not the first time and those responsible should be held to account. For decades now, public health in general and tobacco control in particular has been a gravy train for the under talented, the obsessive and the politically motivated.

Karen said...

Government throws money at this nanny excuse for a human being who refuses to acknowledge Tobacco Harm Reduction. He should be barred from receiving ANY future government funding, and be forced to return the funds he collected to politicize a subject that effects HUMANS, whether they are California democrats or English royalty. What is really sad is that grant, as minimal as it might be to him, would enable a group like CASAA to really help public health. Telling smokers the truth about reduced harm alternatives will work, Sweden is a perfect example of this. Ignoring the truth just makes him...ignorant.

These opinions are my own. My hope is that some day, groups like the Consumer Advocates for Smoke-free Alternatives Association won't even exist because THR will be recognized for what it is. Until that happens I will continue to do my best to make sure the anti's stop doing harm.

Ben said...

I'm appalled about the fact that the National Cancer Institute pours public money to selected (prominent) activists instead of spending it for their declared mission. Somebody in this organization must have lost it completely or they simply have too much money; cut their budgets, hold them accountable, cent by cent, for what they do with it.

Junican said...

I Grantz gets defunded completely, will the Uni of California get rid of him finally? Will he join Rapace in retirement?

Junican said...

Oh... And as regards the 'deja vu'. is he really as numb as that?

belsha said...

What I find mind boggling is that writing a 8 page article reposing on a keyword search of Google cost 700 000$ to do !

jredheadgirl said...

"Mr Harris: Dr Collins, what methods does the NIH have when this kind of research takes dollars from cancer research—and other important, vital research—what does the NIH do to universities that waste federal tax dollars this way? ."

Ouch! Now that says it ALL. If the American public at large began to realize what really goes on behind the scenes (with regards to funding, etc..), they'd be furious. This is waaaay beyond being a partisan issue; taking cancer research $$ away from deserving scientists hurts us all.